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The 200 Best Songs of The 1980s

The greatest hits of music’s wildest decade – hip-hop, synth-pop, indie rock, metal, Chicago house, Miami freestyle, ska, goth, reggae, acid house, and more

200 best songs of the 1980s


WELCOME TO THE jungle. We got fun and games. The Eighties are one of the weirdest eras ever for music. It’s a decade of excess. It’s also a decade of INXS. It’s got big hair, big drums, big shoulder pads. Not to mention massive stars: Prince, Madonna, Michael, Bruce, Janet, Sade, Cher. New sounds and beats explode everywhere. Hip-hop takes over as the voice of young America. Glam-metal rocks the Sunset Strip. New Romantic synth-pop invades MTV. Thriller becomes history’s biggest hit. Music gets louder, crazier, messier. Do you know where you are? You’re in the Eighties, baby.

So let’s break it down: the 200 best songs of the Eighties, music’s most insane decade. The hits, the deep cuts, the fan favorites. A mix tape of pop classics, rockers, rappers, soul divas, new wavers, disco jams, country twangers, punk ragers, dance-floor anthems, smooth operators, and karaoke room-clearers. There’s all-time legends and one-hit wonders. There’s new rebel voices that expoded out of nowhere. There’s cheese. There’s sleaze. Axl meets Slash. Salt meets Pepa. Echo meets the Bunnymen. Frankie goes to Hollywood. Public Enemy brings the noise. Madonna brings the sex. There’s Chicago house, Detroit techno, Miami freestyle, D.C. go-go. There’s ska, goth, reggae, acid house. But just one song per artist, or half the list would be Prince.

Some of these Eighties songs remain famous around the world. You hear them at weddings, parties, clubs, the karaoke bar. Others make people run and scream in terror. Many are songs you remember; some you desperately try to forget. But every one is a brilliant tune, and each one is part of the unsolvable Rubik’s Cube that is Hair Decade pop.

So welcome to the Eighties. Put this mix tape in the boombox, pump up the volume, and hit play. Push it. Push it real good.

From Rolling Stone US


Van Halen, ‘Everybody Wants Some!!’

A reading from the Book of Dave: “I like the way the line runs up the back of the stockings. I’ve always liked those kinda high heels too. No-no-no-no, don’t take them off!” Edward Van Halen told Rolling Stone he wanted their music to sound like “Godzilla waking up,” and “Everybody Wants Some!!” delivers, with peak EVH, peak Alex, peak Michael Anthony, and peak “yeah, that’s it, a little more to the right” Diamond Davery. Richard Linklater used the title for an excellent hangout film about college baseball dudes listening to music one day in 1980, without a single song out of place.


Shriekback, ‘Nemesis’

Best goth purple-hair sex-club disco anthem ever, plus the best hit with the word “parthenogenesis” in the chorus. The London art pervs in Shriekback came up with a monster 12-inch hook, full of slithery synth beats and spooky death chants, as if it’s a soundtrack to the most decadent orgies of the Roman Empire. Not a lot of Eighties dance hits that feature centaurs and cannibals, but Shriekback fill the void.


EPMD, ‘Strictly Business’

Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith emerged in the hip-hop summer of 1988, two suburban dudes from Strong Island, with their own laid-back sound. “Strictly Business” is EPMD’s sure shot, kicking off their stellar four-album run. It’s stoned to the bone, with enough bass to shred woofers in jeeps or blow up backyard barbecues. It’s the low-riding beat that would turn into the West Coast G-funk style. In a real conceptual masterstroke, they sample “I Shot The Sheriff”—not the rootsy Bob Marley original, but the Eric Clapton version, with Parrish scratching it up into their own groove. As Sermon said, “While the world was sampling James Brown, we was over here venturing out on something that was other. We sampled some other type of shit.” Yet “Strictly Business” sounds like nobody but EPMD.


AC/DC, ‘Hell’s Bells’

Every time those bells ring, a devil gets his wings and Bon Scott crushes an empty on his forehead. “Hells Bells” is the epic opener from AC/DC’s Back in Black, with tolling chimes over the skull-crush twin guitars of Angus and Malcolm Young. Brian Johnston was just starting as the new singer, taking over after Bon’s tragic death, but he doesn’t hold back. “If you’re into evil, you’re a friend of mine” is such a relatable sentiment.


The Weather Girls, ‘It’s Raining Men”

The whole disco story in one epic song: Black women, Eurodisco gay men, gospel, sex, rain, thunder, the apocalypse. The Weather Girls were two legends: Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes Armstead, longtime back-up singers for disco queen Sylvester. They rip into “It’s Raining Men,” written by producer Paul Jabara and David Letterman sidekick Paul Shaffer, in a flurry of hallelujahs and amens. The Weather Girls deliver a meteorological report on an impending sex storm, advising, “Get ready, all you lonely girls, and leave those umbrellas at home!” But the clouds really open when they belt the climax: “God bless Mother Nature! She’s a single woman too!” Amen.


John Waite, ‘Missing You’

The most soulful of arena rockers, with one of the saddest AOR break-up songs. As John Waite once said, his style is “Heathcliff with a Marshall stack.” In the post-“Billie Jean” era, songs all had to have long, long, long fadeouts—there was no concept that you could repeat the title too many times al coda. But “Missing You” is one where you hang on the end, hoping you might get a late-breaking glimmer of hope. (Any DJ who fades it out before that last “oh nooo” is a failure at life.) The most devastating moment: when he rips into the words “heartbreak overload.”


The B-52s, ‘Private Idaho’

The B-52s were the tacky little dance band from Athens, G-A, mixing up surf music, girl-group harmonies, beehive hairdos and post-punk guitar into their own unique groove. But they had emotional staying power, as in the loopy freakout “Private Idaho.” Fred Schneider shrieks his warnings about living in your own Private Idaho (“get off the patio!”) while Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson do all 16 dances and then some.


Exposé, ‘Point of No Return’

The “Smells Like Teen Spirit” of freestyle, from the Miami mastermind Lewis Martinée. As in all the greatest freestyle hits, from Miami (Trinere, Sequel, Company B) to New York (The Cover Girls, Sweet Sensation, Corina, Lisette Melendez), the singers belt with raw emotion, over the bangs and booms and whooshes of the rhythm machines, holding nothing back, until the whole song reaches the point of no return. 


Fugazi, ‘Waiting Room’

Fugazi’s 1988 debut EP was a shock—a band of D.C. punk lifers with a fierce DIY ethic, refusing to go quietly or rest on their laurels. Their whole story is a testament to renewed artistic inspiration and political solidarity. Ian MacKaye from Minor Threat joined voices with Guy Picciotti from Rites of Spring in “Waiting Room,” their furious yet jolliest all-together-now shout, digging in for the long haul. Fugazi did everything their own way, and made compromise look like a sucker’s game. Imagine going back in time to 1988 and telling people that “Waiting Room” would be more famous in 2023 than practically any of the year’s pop hits.


Cameo, ‘Word Up’

Larry Blackmon’s band of Atlanta funkateers already had plenty of hits, from “Shake Your Pants” to “She’s Strange.” But “Word Up” is a monster, bridging the disco and hip-hop eras yet belonging to neither. Just a nasty guitar groove, spaghetti-western whistles, real horns pretending to be synth horns, and a punk-rock nasal voice as distinctive as his red leather codpiece. Blackmon shares his birthday with Bob Dylan, but we’re still waiting on this poet to win the Nobel Prize he deserves for lines like, “Give us music, we can use it, we need to dance! We don’t have the time for psychological romance!” 


Indeep, ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’

The ultimate “sad girl listening to disco on the radio” anthem. Indeep’s immortal one-shot captures a moment when club sounds, rap, New Wave, R&B, were all mixing it up. Reggi Magloire and Rose Marie Ramsey pray to the DJ to heal their broken hearts, over that low-budget Chic beat, until the DJ comes in to promise: “There’s not a problem that I can’t fix, because I can do it in the mix.” “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life” is a classic because it speaks to any fan who’s ever gone searching for salvation in her favorite baseline and found it. 


Bruce Springsteen, ‘Atlantic City’

“Atlantic City” is the centerpiece of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, just the man and his acoustic guitar. A Jersey guy has debts no honest man can pay and a wife no broke man can keep, so he does a little favor for the mob. All those things that used to seem so important—well, mister, they’re deader than the Chicken Man. All he can tell his wife on his way out the door is, “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”


De La Soul, ‘Eye Know’

De La Soul open up rap’s D.A.I.S.Y. Age. Posdnous, Maseo, and the late great Trugoy the Dove had their own fresh style, grabbing inspiration from anywhere, with their producer Prince Paul piling on the samples. “Eye Know” was just one highlight from their Native Tongues masterwork 3 Feet High and Rising, with a little help from Steely Dan, at a time when the Dan were not necessarily the hippest band to appreciate. But as Posdnous told Rolling Stone, “When me and Dave [Trugoy] worked in the mall, we would just hear songs playing in the loudspeakers. They would always play Steely Dan’s ‘Peg’ and we were, even then, aspiring to be a group, and we were like, ‘Yo, that could be a dope song to use.’” So won’t you smile for the camera?


Hüsker Dü, ‘Celebrated Summer’

The Minnesota punk trio spent the Eighties making the most ferociously emotional rock records around, in landmarks like Metal Circus, Zen Arcade and New Day Rising. The Huskers pushed the limits of the hardcore scene, blowing Mohawked minds at a time when it was still controversial to learn a fourth chord. “Celebrated Summer” is their most intensely cathartic song, with Bob Mould raging about the kind of summer that takes an instant to pass but a lifetime to get over. Halfway through, his guitar buzz pauses, and he busts out his 12-string acoustic guitar for a hushed moment of loneliness. His question: “Do you remember when the first snowfall fell? / When summer barely had a snowball’s chance in hell?” Tough stuff.


Bonnie Tyler, ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’

Power Ballad Armageddon. In this corner: Bonnie Tyler, the Welsh pop belter with the sandpaper voice. In that corner: Jim Steinman, the lord of mega-pop overkill, composer of operatic rockers for Meat Loaf and Air Supply, the guy who calls himself “Little Richard Wagner.” Result: “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” a Number One ballad that spirals through about 12 climaxes, with the ultimate karaoke credo, “Once upon a time I was falling in love/Now I’m only falling apart.” Killer ending: the guy with the glowing eyeballs chirps one last, “Turn around, bright eyes!”


Adam and the Ants, ‘Stand and Deliver’

“I’m the dandy highwaymen you’re too scared to mention! I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention!” Adam Ant was the great New Wave provocateur of his era, flouncing in pirate drag. He declared war on everything boring about the Eighties, in classics like “Prince Charming,” “Antmusic,” “Zerox,” “Goody Two Shoes,” “Jolly Roger,” and the yes-it-really-happened “Ant Rap”? But “Stand and Deliver” is his ultimate glam manifesto, with Adam yelping and howling over tribal drums and mega-twang guitar, with his message to the world: if you’re not making a bizarre spectacle of yourself, what are you even doing with your life? Or as Adam laments, “It’s kinda tough to tell a scruff the big mistake he’s making!” 


Funky Four Plus One, ‘That’s The Joint’

The most effervescent old-school Sugarhill rap, from a crew of South Bronx kids. “We got golden voices and hearts of steel,” the Funky Four boast, with Plus One herself, the pioneering female MC Sha-Rock. They keep passing the mic for verse after verse, over the funk groove of the Sugarhill house band and Doug Wimbish’s bass. “That’s the Joint” captures the spirit of early rap at its most utopian. Lil Rodney C sums up what it’s all about: “Just chilling hard, living in luxury, and being very proud to be an MC.”


Pixies, ‘Debaser’

The Pixies rip into their second album Doolittle with “Debaser,” blasting through the loud/quiet/loud formula, but without the quiet part. Frank Black screams about the notorious “slicing up eyeballs” scene in the Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali film Un Chien Andalou, while Kim Deal adds her ineffable Midwest cool to the chorus. The best thing to happen to the word “groovy” since Simon and Garfunkel broke up.


Rosanne Cash, ‘Seven Year Ache’

“Face down in a memory, but feelin’ alright”—you’ve probably had a few nights like that. Roseanne Cash claims her crown with a country-rock tale eviscerating a smooth-talking ladies’ man as he prowls all over L.A., ripping him to shreds. (“Heartaches are heroes when their pockets are full”—true that.) I will never understand why this song isn’t as famous as “You’re So Vain,” but it’s an absolute Casanova-killer, and the best L.A. singles-bar song of a very L.A. singles-bar era. What a chorus: “The boys say, ‘When is he gonna give us some room?’/The girls say, ‘God, I hope he comes back soon.’”


Eddy Grant, ‘Electric Avenue’

Eddy Grant wrote “Electric Avenue” after the 1981 Brixton riots, where African-Caribbean youth battled the police. But it became a global smash, a radical mix mashing up reggae, synth-pop, punk and funk, with a drum loop distorted to roar like a revving motorcycle. His voice hits home with a no-bullshit adult style of working-class anger, growling, “Can’t get food for the kid—good gaaaawd!”